For more than two and a half years, contracted airport workers at major New York-area airports -- JFK, La Guardia and Newark -- have been fighting for wage increases, benefits and paid sick days and holidays.
They have held demonstrations, presented petitions to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airports, and have asked the airlines to make their subcontractors pay the workers, who make poverty wages, a decent salary.
Nothing happened. Until now.
On Martin Luther King Day nearly 1,000 workers and their supporters staged a huge rally outside LaGuardia Airport and blocked one of the bridges leading to the facility. Thirty-two people who sat down and refused to leave were arrested, including Rep. Charles Rangel of Harlem, eight City Council members, two state assembly members, clergy and Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union.
That's when people really started to notice -- more than a dozen news outlets showed up. Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a strong statement of support for the workers. New York Times columnist Michael Powell wrote a compelling story about the workers and the New York Daily News did in-depth profiles of some workers and launched a "Fair Pay" campaign.
The paper also reported that while airlines are making huge profits, the workers earn minimum wage or less. They added a stinging editorial urging the governors of New York and New Jersey to get involved. It began: "The governors... must force wage and benefits for employees at Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports to end the serf-like poverty of 12,000 employees there." Two days later, Cuomo said he would ask the Port Authority to see what could be done for the workers.
While the press attention was amazing, the true heroes are the workers, who have been fighting in the shadows for dignity and respect for so long.
People like Wendy Arellano, a single mother of two daughters who makes minimum wage as an airport cabin cleaner and who must work two other jobs just to barely make ends meet. She and her daughters live in a tiny $600-a-month apartment and share the same bed.
And people like Shareeka Elliot, a terminal cleaner for Airway Cleaners at JFK, who struggles to support herself and her two daughters on a minimum-wage salary. She says, "Supporting yourself and two growing girls is nearly impossible. My take-home wage does not begin to cover bills, daycare and food... I feel like I'm drowning in debt."
Of course they are not alone; there are about 12,000 to 15,000 other Wendys and Shareekas working for subcontractors at the three New York-area airports. They make poverty wages; have no healthcare and few meaningful benefits, and have no paid time off. Some work two or three jobs and many rely on food stamps and various forms of public assistance to get by.
These contracted workers keep the airports safe and clean and perform the same functions as people directly employed by the airlines and the Port Authority -- but are paid significantly less.
A new report by the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education found that the outsourcing of baggage porter jobs more than tripled between 2002 and 2012, while wages dropped by 45 percent. Outsourcing of cleaning jobs more than doubled in that same period while wages fell 25 percent. The report says that nationally more than one in three airport workers lives in poverty and relies on public assistance to make ends meet.
This is not right. This is not fair.
Airport workers -- like car wash workers and grocery store employees in New York City and fast food workers across the country -- deserve fair wages, good benefits and, most of all, dignity and respect.
That is going to happen, no matter how many more acts of civil disobedience we do and no matter how many more people have to get arrested to drive home that message.